Journalism work experience debate (Storify)

I followed a good debate on Twitter today, when some valuable points were made regarding the pros and cons of doing unpaid work experience, and so I thought it was worth capturing the discussion via Storify. [<a href=”” target=”_blank”>View the story “Unpaid journalism work experience: The debate” on Storify</a>]

What does an editor do? …

…It’s not an ‘Answers on a Postcard, Please’ moment, or a rhetorical question (although I guess it’s one many working in the news industry have asked, in varying tones of frustration, at one time or another). 

For the purposes of this blog post, however, it is part of my MA dissertation I’m tackling on the Journalism Leaders course at UCLan
When I embarked on the hunt for a topic which merited 20,000 words of my deathless prose I was interested in editorial responsibilities in terms of entrepreneurship, and innovation and change management

Then, after it was gently pointed out that the dissertation deadline was September 2012, not – as my broad field of interest would have required – before the eventual collapse of the universe, I had to refine the topic. 
It came down to this: What do editors do? What will they be required to do in the face of industry disruption, and what can the role become? 

I’m not looking at broadcast media challenges and I’m mainly focused on the UKas the role seems to have different scopes and definitions in some other countries.
Also, it was partly fueled by the UK responses to the World News Future & Change Study (2010), where publishing executives discussed their strategic and operational goals and challenges for the immediate future.
Globally, responses post to the open-ended question: “What is the single most important change that has to be implemented in your newspaper over the next year?” included

  •    Content/journalism
  •    Leadership/management/strategy
  •    Convergence
  •    Internet/technologies
  •    Culture change

Internationally, there was a strong feeling existing leaders were unprepared for these next steps, but it was the UK respondents who saw leadership training/development as the logical solution.
So I’m approaching the issue from the point of view that if there is a stated strategic goal for change, and an understanding that editorial leaders need development to meet that goal, what competencies does an editor require now, and in the coming years?

It means I need editors to say, anonymously if they wish, what their present role entails, what their average day comprises, what areas they feel they need more development in, and what challenges they are facing. 
I’m running a questionnaire on SurveyMonkey which, by the way, is a great sampling tool and gives you up to 10 questions free. I chose the market research template, and my questions are a mix of multiple choice, rating, ranking, comment and text. 
You can find the survey here and if you’re able to assist me by taking the survey, or pinging it around the interwebs to reach as many media executives as possible, you’ll have my deepest gratitude. (And huge thanks to Hold The Front Page and the Society of Editors for kind assistance in highlighting it.)

Now I’ve got the topic sorted and am researching things, I’m nose-deep in interesting journals and papers  (there are a lot of interesting papers and journals out there – it’s daunting how many, to be honest). 
I’ve created a Delicious Stack of some of the readings I’ve found interesting. It’s the first time I’ve really found a Stack worthwhile and it may even lure me back to start using Delicious again more often.

Photo credit –  the Cheezburger faries, of course.Where else are you going to get teh cute kitteh on keyboard photo from? 
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Universal journalist prototype

The pros and cons of shorthand for journalists is a question that seems to vex j-students up and down the UK, as I discovered when Tom Rouse asked me for my view recently. 
As our conversation continued on Twitter and others joined in I learned that a) shorthand was essential b) shorthand  was not essential and c) North America isn’t as enamored with shorthand as the UK.
So, that’s less than conclusive. Personally, I think it’s necessary to have a benchmark standard and 100wpm shorthand does offer that but I think ruling out everyone who doesn’t have it is pretty short-sighted to.  
Tom’s article is here; I think that possibly the best advice I’d be able to give would be this: If I were a student shopping for journalism courses right now, and wanted to go into mainstream media, I’d pick one with shorthand and bust my chops to get 100wpm. 
Once you have that piece of paper no one can take it from you and many editors will not consider anyone who doesn’t have it. But… I think that within 5 years this will no longer be the case, and shorthand will be with the ‘nice to haves’.

I know award-winning journalists with shorthand and without; editors who insist on it, and editors who take pride in clambering the slippery slope without ever troubling a dipthong. 
Such dichotomies are of no use to would-be reporters considering courses though. 
But I’d have more concerns about the journalistic attitude of an interview candidate who couldn’t talk – with enthusiasm and authority – about sourcing, verifying and creating content. That sort of thing is a lot harder to learn – and time-consuming to teach. 
Frankly, my universal journalist prototype gets tweaked all the time but, in addition to having a mind that was basically one big question mark, I’d want them to be a bit like this…

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Journalism students and work experience: getting the most out of a newsroom

Journalist Patrick Smith tweeted some sensible advice for student journos preparing for the world of  work experience this week:

 He followed it up by urging workies not to be scared of suggesting ideas; now, Patrick is a kindly sort and also found space in his 140chars to acknowledge the difficultes unpaid work experience types face in a newsroom; I hope those who saw his tweets took the message on board. But it did get me thinking about the workies I’ve seen around newsrooms over the years, where they fitted in to the organisation, and what they got out of it.

The newsroom can be a daunting place for a newbie, even one on the payroll, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed and overlooked if you’re joining the bustle for a one-week taster of real world workplaces.
When I was reporting or newsdesking, workies – by which I mean journalism college students, not school pupils – tended to arrive in reception at 9am on a Monday morning (because that’s when their letter from HR told them to arrive), ask for the news editor (again, as per their letter) and then, if they were lucky a newsdesk PA came and got them. If they weren’t, they’d sit in reception until a harrassed newsdesker or journalist arrived and let them into the Inner Sanctum – where a pile of national papers would be thrust at them with the line: “We’re all on edition, someone will come and see you soon”.

Now, soon is one of the most flexible definitions known to newsrooms; it can mean 10 minutes, or it can mean “it’s 4 o’clock – you should go home now”. So, two suggestions:

1. Phone the newsdesk the week before you start, introduce yourself and, even if you’ve already got a start time from whoever arranged the pacement, just check the newsdesk is expecting you then. And check who you should really ask for at reception.
2. If you’re steered to a desk and look through the papers, get the guest login for the computer, and search them online instead – and run some searches for local blogs, forums and social network updates while you’re at it. It’s faster, easier and you’ll feel better looking at a screen like everyone around you, rather than turning pages in a futile search for news.

I don’t want to generalise here but I’ll bet most newsrooms don’t revolve around making sure your work experience is a happy and useful one. So at some point a workie needs to approach the newsdesk.
You see the phrase ‘brimming with ideas’ time and again in journalism job adverts. However, the word ‘good’ needs to be in front of ‘ideas’ or everyone’s wasting their time.
A few, thoughtful and relevant suggestions to pitch are more valuable than a scattergun approach; the latter might grind a newsdesker into saying yes, just to get you to knuckle down and do something, but the finished product probably won’t make it to the page, printed or online.

The phrase to avoid is: “Is there anything for me to do?” Find out from the reporters what time the morning madness subsides on the newsdesk and, if you’ve been left to your own devices til then, make your move. Saying “I’ve got some ideas for stories but before I start those is there anything you want me to help out with?” sounds confident and bright. If you want to spend one of your five days working with a journalist or department you’re particularly interested in – like the health reporter, or the business desk – then ask. Also ask if you can attend at least one news conference, to see how the paper is planned.

Have some story suggestions, but craft them around what you know is making the local news agenda. So, if the previous week the issue of, say, residents complaining the local council was giving them different bins (like this) then consider how you could move that issue on. Lateral thinking  is good; you don’t need to go down the vox pop route.
You may aspire to the WSJ but if you’ve got a work placement on your local paper, about the important local issues.
Also think about asking the picture or digital desk if they’d like you to do a video report or soundslide, or whether local environment/recycling statistics could make some nice cross-platform infographics – the multimedia skills journalism students learn as part of their studies give them an edge in many newsrooms, and abilities are remembered. 

Read the paper. And I mean REALLY read the paper. If house style is January 10 and you keep writing 10th Janurary after you’ve been told once, it’s annoying. If you write 600 words when it’s obvious the average length of a lead is 350 you’re wasting your time and newsdesk’s time and patience. Is it ‘mum-of-4’ or ‘mother-of-four’? Is it Cllr, Councillor, Clr, Coun?
If you don’t know something, ask the reporters around you or see if you can’t find the style answer in the actual title.

Of course, newsrooms need to do right by work experience people as well, by which I mean treating them as embryonic journalists who have aspirations to work in the industry (and who might one day be an editor themselves) rather than ambulatory pieces of the furniture.
But some workies don’t do themselves any favours – I’ve previously sent people  home for wearing jeans – and a can-do attitude is way more attractive than either world-weary insouciance or projecting an aura of ‘helping out the local rag until The Guardian comes and asks me to rescue them’.

The issue of paid and unpaid work experience is a thorny one. I’ve had a couple of newly-graduated journalists work ad hoc shifts, unpaid, because they wanted the experience and bylines. It was informal, and on their terms, and I wouldn’t ever have considered them on the rota, so to speak. It’s not the way I think newsrooms should operate as a habit, but if someone wants to do some days over the summer to boost their profile and CV, then it can be a mutually-beneficial arrangement.
However, 1st year students discovering if mainstream media journalism on an average local paper is for them, is a very different thing. ‘Free staff’ is not how a newsdesk tends to see someone whose copy has to be rewritten from scratch to turn the facts into something resembling the English language.

I suspect some workies leave their placements thinking regional newspapers aren’t for them; it is hard work, and sliding circulations and cutbacks aren’t the best adverts for a career on the local paper. But it is one of the best, maddest careers you can choose – there aren’t too many jobs where you answer the phone to hear a annoyed receptionist snap: “There’s a man in reception with a dead otter and he won’t leave til he’s seen you”*.

Five days – 10 if you’re lucky – aren’t long enough to experience regional newspaper journalism but it is enough time to learn how a newsroom barrels along (on the edge of a catastrophe curve) and how to be an effective operator in a workplace (take your turn in the tea rounds).
My advice for journo students on work experience is, I guess, to aim to learn some new things, have an open – and broad! – mind and a few ideas, and see if you can’t have some laughs. Because there are plenty of opportunities for them, and you’ll enjoy your week a lot more.

*That really happened, by the way.

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Worst work experience email ever?

Today brought what can only be described as the worst appeal for work experience with a newspaper I’ve seen in two decades of working in a newsroom. It is a genuine application – in case you were wondering – and I wanted to share it, verbatim, missing caps and all, because I still can’t quite believe someone thought this would be sufficient.
Names have been removed to spare blushes (honestly, I am too nice sometimes):

hi my name is *** i will love to no if i can do my work X there at the [newspaper title] will u ask your boss for me if i can cal u get back to me plzz asap thank u m8t 

 The email address was equally great – an abbreviation of the applicant’s favourite football team, with the phrase ‘badboy’ tacked on the end.
When I was a junior reporter, a long-suffering and kindly sub gave me my own spelling book so I could note down and correct my many errors. I suspect even he would be a bit thoughtful at the prospect of tackling this applicant’s shortcomings.